Happy Birthday Jake Gyllenhaal

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Today is Jake Gyllenhaal’s 36th birthday, which seemed as good a time as any to reflect on his body of work. I’ve always liked Gyllenhaal, but it’s only been relatively recently that his mere association with a project is enough for me to automatically be interested. On top of being a fairly versatile actor, he also comes off as very affable. Whether that is actually true, I have no idea, but he gives off the vibes of a nice guy. It helps, at least for me, that he’s a New Yorker; anyone who loves the City as much as I do and chooses to live there gets a boost in my book.

In preparing for this post I skimmed Gyllenhaal’s IMDB page and I was surprised by two things: he only has 40 acting credits and I have seen far fewer Jake Gyllenhaal movies than I would have anticipated. On the first point, it feels like his career to date has been much more prolific than 40 credits; I’m pretty sure that The Rock has 40 credits just from the last two years. Gyllenhaal feels like a guy that should have been in more things at this point, but at least there aren’t a ton of clunkers in the bunch. Everyone has a few credits that they probably aren’t as proud of, but Gyllenhaal seems to have put together a solid résumé. Quality over quantity, I guess.

There are also a lot of Jake Gyllenhaal projects that I haven’t seen but that are on my list; I assume some time in the near future I’ll check out End of Watch and Southpaw and his newest film, Nocturnal Animals, is high on my priority list. I may have to have a Jake Gyllenhaal movie marathon during the holidays. There are worse ways to spend an evening.

So as a tribute to him on his birthday, here are some of my favorite Jake Gyllenhaal performances. And no, Donnie Darko doesn’t make the list because I do not understand that movie at all.

Brokeback Mountain

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I am still mad that this movie lost the Academy Award for Best Picture to that piece of trash Crash, but this was the movie when I fully realized what Jake Gyllenhaal was capable of as an actor. He and Heath Ledger were so good in this movie and gave such nuanced, restrained performances. It’s a beautiful movie with beautiful acting. And I always respected them both for taking on the roles of Ennis and Jack; 2005 isn’t that long ago, but it is light years ago in how this country as a whole viewed homosexuality. There was (sadly) the potential for professional risk for both young actors. I don’t know if Brokeback Mountain changed a lot minds, but it did expose mainstream audiences a very different sort of love story.

 

Prisoners

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This drama about the lengths that a father will go to when his child is abducted is not necessarily an easy watch, but is anchored by the strong lead performances of Hugh Jackman as the father and Gyllenhaal as the obsessive detective assigned to the case. While outwardly Detective Loki is fairly stoic and controlled, Gyllenhaal expertly shows the signs of the internal struggle waging within the man as he struggles to solve the case and internalizes all its failures. When Loki finally does explode, it is well-earned, thanks to the subtle work that Gyllenhaal is doing throughout the movie. While Jackman’s role is the flashier of the two, Gyllenhaal provides an important and necessary counterbalance to the actions of a grieving father. You may sympathize with Jackman, but Gyllenhaal is the true moral voice of the movie. A great performance that I don’t think gets enough attention.

 

Nightcrawler

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Gyllenhaal received a lot of attention for his role of a sociopath that sells footage of crimes to local news stations, as he should have. Gyllenhaal changed his appearance fairly drastically, becoming a wiry guy with slicked back hair and eyes that bug out of his head. As impressive as the physical changes were, he matched them in his performance of the weird and creepy Louis Bloom; as the movie unfolds, there are more and more layers to the character. There is an intensity to the character and you really can’t look away from Gyllenhaal’s performance, which is fitting because his character rarely blinks or looks away from anyone.  As I said in my initial review, this was the role that Gyllenhaal was waiting for to prove what he can do. Unlike many of his other movies, Gyllenhaal is not part of an ensemble or playing the second lead. Nightcrawler is his movie and lives and dies on his performance; its success is a testament to his skill as an actor.

 

Little Shop of Horrors

NEW YORK, NY - JULY 01:  Jake Gyllenhaal during the opening night curtain call for the New York City Center Encores! Off-Center production of "Little Shop of Horrors" at City Center on July 1, 2015 in New York City.  (Photo by Walter McBride/WireImage)

 (Photo by Walter McBride/WireImage)

Curiosity was a driving force in my decision to see Jake Gyllenhaal in Little Shop of Horrors at the New York City Center; Gyllenhaal had established that he can play a lot of different roles, but I didn’t know if musical theater was one of the arrows in his quiver. I had sadly missed him on stage during his Broadway run in Constellations, but that was a drama. Could hunky Gyllenhaal transform himself into nerdy Seymour Krelborn, complete with singing and comedy? It turns out that the answer was a resounding yes and I really enjoyed his performance in a musical that holds a special place in my heart. He seamlessly stepped into the world of musicals and when I saw him this year in Sundays in the Park with George I knew he’d hit it out of the park.

 

Homicide: Life on the Streets

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This is an oldie but a goodie and while Gyllenhaal was a child when he made a guest appearance on one of my favorite series, Homicide: Life on the Streets, he picked one of the best episodes of the series as one of his earliest acting credits. In the episode, Gyllenhaal and his family (including Robin Williams as his father) are tourists in Baltimore and his mother is killed in a robbery. Gyllenhaal’s role is pretty small, but I’ll take any chance that I can to remind people to seek out this show. It’s so incredibly good.

Honorable mention: Mystery Show podcast, Source Code episode – This podcast (RIP) was one of my favorite podcast of 2015 and one particularly fun episode focused on solving the mystery of how tall Jake Gyllenhaal actually is. Sounds like an easy mystery to solve, but you’d be surprised. Gyllenhaal does make an appearance on the podcast and it really solidifies all the good things that I think about him as a person. It’s an amusing episode and worth a listen. Jake and host Sarlee Kine also dropped by Conan to discuss the mystery.

What are your favorite Jake Gyllenhaal performances? Do you think that he is underrated, overrated, or gets just the right amount of praise? Sound off in the comments section.

Nightcrawler – A Review

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With Nightcrawler, Jake Gyllenhaal finally gets his chance to shine.

I’ve always enjoyed Gyllenhaal and thought that he does solid work; if anything, I think he’s an underrated actor. Though he has been in a ton of movies, he’s rarely been given the opportunity to show the world just what it is that he can do. Even when he turns in some of his best work, he’s often been overshadowed by his co-stars; Gyllenhaal’s performance in Brokeback Mountain, for example, is heartbreaking and subtle, but Heath Ledger eclipsed Gyllenhaal in most people’s eyes. Gyllenhaal was one of my favorite things about Prisoners last year, but it’s hard to compete with a raging Hugh Jackman. Gyllenhaal has made his fair share of career missteps – Prince of Persia seemed particularly ill-advised – but he’s a guy that I always thought was one performance away from convincing the masses how talented he really was. It appears that his opportunity has arrived.

There’s a lot to like in the new film Nightcrawler, but first and foremost is Jake Gyllenhaal’s intensely creepy performance. When we first meet Louis Bloom (Gyllenhaal), he is trying to convince the guy that he’s selling stolen cooper to that he should be given a job. From the beginning, it is clear that there is something just a little off about Bloom; he can seem quite charming, but there is an inauthenticity to it. He’s part salesman and part con artist; his moral code is questionable at best. One night Bloom comes across a “nightcrawler” (Bill Paxton) – a freelance videographer that trolls L.A. at night, shooting footage of crimes and catastrophes and then sells his video to the local news stations. Bloom is immediately drawn to this prospective career opportunity; he buys himself a police scanner and a cheap camcorder and spends his evenings as a different kind of ambulance chaser. He even is able to convince a young man (Riz Ahmed) to become his intern in this venture, by overstating the nature and career opportunities of the job. Using questionable methods and ethics and by adhering to the old media adage “if it bleeds it leads,” Bloom fosters a relationship with local news director Nina (Rene Russo). In order to maintain his competitive edge – and hold sway over Nina – Bloom is not afraid to resort to drastic measures and manufacture stories to assure he gets the best footage in Los Angeles.

You really can’t take your eyes of Gyllenhaal in this performance; it’s unlike anything that he’s ever done before and makes you see the actor in a new light. Gyllenhaal’s Bloom is clearly a weird guy, but as the movie progresses and the layers of his character are revealed you discover what a sociopath he truly is. Gyllenhaal is completely convincing in this cold and creepy role – there is danger lurking under the surface with Bloom and it’s just a question of when that will be unleased. What makes it truly unsettling is that there is little to no anger associated with this menace; when Bloom is threatening, he does so without raising his voice or with any sense that he is not in control of his emotions. The coolness with which he can switch between a pleasant conversation about the weather to threatening blackmail or physical harm is jarring. Further enhancing this performance is the physical transformation of Gyllnehaal – the actor lost about 30 pounds from his already svelte body for this role and the result is a wiry guy whose eyes always look like they are going to pop out of his head. While in Prisoners I joked that Gyllnehaal blinked a lot, in Nightcrawler he barely blinks at all. This only adds to the intensity of his portrayal and serves as another subtle clue that there is something not right about Louis Bloom. When it serves his purposes, Bloom can be affable and even charming, though he also gives off the impression that he is trying a little too hard. What can initially be written off as earnestness is in fact Bloom’s unchecked ambition and calculating nature. He’s willing to play whatever role he needs to in order to manipulate and get ahead. In some ways, this character reminded me a little of Robert DeNiro in Taxi Driver.

The film not only offers us a look at a disturbed individual, but is an examination of our media culture. At a time when both national and local news outlets are trumping up the threat of Ebola as a way to drive ratings, there is much to identify with Russo’s news room philosophy. Her viewers, she indicates, aren’t interested in all crime; what happens in the poorer sections of town are of no interest to them. The creep of urban crime into the suburbs is the real money maker and the way that she coaching the news team to reinforce the danger that the people tuning in may or may not realistically face seemed very realistic. Russo’s character Nina isn’t necessarily a bad person, but she’s a veteran of the local news game and knows what she needs to do to survive. If anything, she’s a pragmatist. We’re complicit in this too, as the consumers that are driving the ratings. Nightcrawler may not handle this critique in the most subtle or nuanced way and it won’t come as a surprise to people like me who have been studying the media for years, but regardless of the deftness of the presentation you can’t help but think about this issue and how we receive our news. There’s also some more subtle stuff about how local news media treats women as they age.

Even though I had an idea where Nightcrawler was ultimately going to end up, it was still a riveting film. The cast and crew ratchet up the tension over the course of the film and the last 20 minutes or so were fairly intense. Even with a suspicion as to the resolution, I found myself slightly leaning forward in my seat and unable to relax. There are laughs to be had in Nightcrawler, but they are mostly the uncomfortable kind. It’s a nervous laughter, born from the unease at what your are witnessing and your subconscious need to deflect or repackage what you are asked to process. Even so, the laughter never truly alleviates the tension or unease; if anything, I think it actually made me more uncomfortable.

There are moments when Nightcrawler moves a little slow for me or where the dialogue is less than artful or natural, but despite these flaws I truly enjoyed the movie. Gyllenhaal has created a very memorable character with his performance and the rest of the cast assist in telling an interesting, if creepy story. You’ll walk away from Nightcrawler thinking about Gyllenhaal, but if the film also makes you examine the news in the process, so much the better. Halloween is a time for the creepy and scary, but what makes Nightcrawler is a horror movie of a different kind. The lengths that Gyllenhaal’s Louis is willing to go to in order to get his footage will probably scare you more than any of the serial killers and supernatural entities that Hollywood offers up. Nightcrawler is an entertaining – if slightly unnerving – look at ambition, psychosis and the media.

Nightcrawler opens nationwide today (October 31st).

 

Prisoners – A Review

It’s every parent’s worst nightmare: your child goes missing. Somewhere between your neighbors’ home and yours, she has vanished into thin air. There is a person of interest in the case, who your gut tells you had something to do with the disappearance even if there isn’t enough evidence to hold him in police custody or make an arrest. How far would you go to find out what he knows? Almost every parent I know has said that not only would they die for their child, they would kill for them as well. The new film Prisoners examines what characters do when they are actually put in that situation. To say it in the abstract it one thing; having to actually do it is quite another.

Prisoners is at times a hard film to watch and forces you to consider what your behavior would be given these same circumstances. What I particularly liked about the film was the ambiguity that the story embraces; the viewer has the same limited information to go on as the characters. Much like Hugh Jackman’s character, we don’t know for sure that this man was involved in the abduction. As the action in the movie escalates, that hint of doubt is what makes this an interesting story. It we knew that Alex (Paul Danp) was guilty, it would be much easier to cheer on Jackman. But that uncertainty is more realistic and the possibility that this is an innocent man forces you to constantly re-evaluate your own value system.

The movie is greatly enhanced by its stellar cast. Prisoners benefits greatly from the outstanding actors it assembles – Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Melissa Leo, Dano, Maria Bello, Terrance Howard and Viola Davis – who bring an authenticity and intensity to the story. Jackman, Gyllenhaal and Howard are particular standouts that do a lot of the heavy lifting of the film. As the fathers of the two girls that are missing, Jackman and Gyllenhaal successfully bring to life the anguish and panic of the two men while also highlighting their ethical limits. Gyllenhaal is quite good as the cop who is tasked with this case; it is a less flashy role than the others, but it helps to ground the film. The scene when he is racing to the hospital is so intense that I didn’t even realize that I was holding my breath until it was over. The women of Prisoners are also very good, but this is predominantly the men’s story. A lesser cast would have derailed this movie, but in the capable hands of these accomplished actors provide just the right emotional tenor to make Prisoners a suspenseful and gritty tale.

However, Prisoners is a good, not great movie. What holds it back is a convoluted ending that in attempting to explain everything is rushed and confusing. The reveal was not totally unexpected, but there was so much to unpack in such a short amount of time that it was ultimately unsatisfying. I don’t know that I fully followed all of it and I’m no dummy. I really didn’t need a full explanation; it didn’t matter why all of this happened, just that it did. The last scene in particular may be slightly polarizing; I didn’t necessarily have a problem with it, but I could see why people would find it unsatisfying.

The film would have also benefitted from just a smidge more character development for the leads. We don’t really have much of an idea of what these families were like before the disappearance. Jackman gives a very powerful performance, but I think that his actions would have been even more significant if we had just a little better idea of who he was before he was put in these extraordinary circumstances. There are hints of this for some of the characters, but not a lot.

Prisoners is also a very long movie, clocking in at almost 2 hours and 30 minutes. That is a lot of time to be wallowing in the darkness and the movie definitely feels on the long side. Cutting the story down a bit would go a long way in making this film feel less like an endurance challenge.

Some other thoughts:

  • This is a beautifully shot movie. The cinematography is really spectacular. It is both gritty and lush.
  • The film employs a lot of tight shots of Gyllenhaal’s face. That dude blinks a LOT. It’s kind of disconcerting.
  • This film further proves that Jackman is a versatile actor; he really can play just about anything.
  • Gyllenhaal’s last name in the film was Loki and I couldn’t help thinking of this guy every time it was used:

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Prisoners is a compelling film that forces the viewer to think about what they would do in similar circumstances. It may be a step short of a great film, but the excellent performances are not to blame. Jackson and Gyllenhaal lead a fantastic ensemble cast that have created a taut thriller where the pressure slowly builds as the story unfolds. The rushed final act prevents the film from really sticking the landing, but Prisoners is still tells an intense, if sometimes uncomfortable, tale. Parents will hug their children a little tighter after this film.